I started HBO’s limited series The Night Of when it premiered in July, liked the first three episodes, got busy and just never got back around to it, because it’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not scattered looks here and there. I finally binged the last three episodes over the past few days, racing to the end, and, well, as usual Alan Sepinwall got it right, although I think on balance I liked the series more than he did.
Co-written by Richard Price, who wrote several episodes of The Wire along with the incredible novel Lush Life and the solid Clockers, HBO’s The Night Of was adapted from a five-hour British TV series called Criminal Justice, keeping the same core elements but adding several critical details. The story centers on Naz (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Golden Globe Award), a naive college student of Pakistani descent who “borrows” his father’s cab for a night out, ends up picking up a girl, partying and sleeping with her, only to find when he wakes up in her apartment that she’s been brutally stabbed to death. After a sequence that’s both gripping and a comedy of errors, he’s arrested and charged with the crime, which informs the remainder of the series. (If you don’t have HBO, you can watch the series on amazon.)
The Night Of splits across at least four intertwined plot threads that eventually coalesce in the eighth and final episode. Naz is first represented by eczema-riddled, $250/pop defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, also nominated for a Golden Globe Award), later joined after various machinations by the young idealist Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan); they’re opposed by DA Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and about-to-retire Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), with each side’s efforts forming one subplot. A third focuses on Naz’s experiences in prison, where he’s taken under the wing of convicted murderer Freddy Knight (Micheal K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little). A fourth focuses on the impact of Naz’s arrest on his family and the Muslim community, including the destruction it wreaks on his family’s finances, and the harassment they get from Muslims who fear that it will stir up further prejudice against them and from white supremacists who, frankly, need little provocation anyway.
Awards aside – this is going to lose everything to The People vs. O.J. Simpson at the Golden Globes – The Night Of is strong and compelling but flawed. The storylines don’t carry equal weight or even work that well when presented in counterpoint; the prison stuff felt very rushed and often lurid, while the investigative threads are deliberate, almost cautious, building tension because the stakes are high, and the truth of what happened that night doesn’t become clear until the last episode. If you look only at those two subplots – the prosecutors and the defense – The Night Of is a smart crime drama elevated by several brilliant characters. Interspersing prison scenes or the languid (if entirely plausible) vignettes of Naz’s family presents pacing issues that dragged the middle episodes for me.
And then there is the utter disaster of Chandra Kapoor’s character, who is completely undone by her utterly inexplicable and unrealistic choices in the seventh episode to shatter ethical boundaries between attorney and client, putting her career at risk (or right in the toilet) with no warning or internal justification. Karan nails this character up through that episode, effusing intelligence and confidence with her voice, her posture, and her facial expressions; this is a young lawyer on the come, a woman of integrity, destined for big cases where she owns the room and the cameras, so when the writers have her do two mind-blowingly stupid things as mere plot contrivances (i.e., so Stone can deliver the closing argument), they undo all the work they and Karan have done to build this character into a credible, three-dimensional person.
(Unrelated, but I was floored to find out Karan was born in the UK; her American accent isn’t just good, but precisely neutral. Ahmed is also British, but his character’s accent is very New York, and you can hear little moments where he’s emphasizing certain consonants to harden it. Doing a dead-neutral accent like Karan is a harder task.)
In the original series, the defendant was played by Ben Whishaw (The Lobster, The Hour), so the switch to a Muslim character and son of immigrants introduced an entirely new element to the series, one that the writers chose to explore on the outside of the courtroom but sort of dropped on the way to trial inside it. With white supremacists becoming more open in their hate and their actions, I feel like the treatment of the hostility toward Naz’s family and Muslims in general could have received more thorough handling in the family thread, perhaps with less of the pandering violence scenes from the prison.
Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) is great but underutilized as Naz’s father, reduced to a sad-sack character whose life is spinning beyond his control, and Williams chews up the screen most of the times he appears, playing a character (the criminal with a code) we’ve seen from him before. The series has a bunch of fun cameos, though, with J.D. Williams (Bodie from The Wire) appearing in several episodes, Trudie Styler (an actress best known as Sting’s wife) as a cougar who dated the murder victim’s stepfather, and Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as the jury foreman. I didn’t recognize rappers Sticky Fingaz of Onyx or Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, but both appeared as fellow inmates of Naz and Freddy at Rikers Island.
Despite all of those issues with the series, I found the core storyline – did Naz do it, and how would both sides assemble and present their cases to the jury – very compelling. The final episode doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or big gotcha moments; we get small, very human glimpses into most of the characters, even ones we don’t know that well like DA Weiss. The resolution of Naz’s story is poignant yet ambiguous, and Stone gets almost the same kind of half-and-half treatment. But I do think the cat was just a metaphor, nothing more.